Goose Island: The Beginning of the Next American Revolution?

Union JobsGoose Island is the ­only island ­located on the Chicago Rive­r. I suspect most Chicagoans would need MapQuest to even find Goose Island. Once a center for manufacturing, the surrounding neighborhoods have been quietly gentrified over the years. Until quite recently, the island was most famous for the beer that is brewed at its local Goose Island Brewery.

But that was before the December 2008 sit-in by the employees of the Republic Windows and Doors plant located on Goose Island. When their plant suddenly and illegally shut down, the workers demanded a fair severance package and the payment of accrued and unused leave.They occupied the plant in an effort to win their demands.

The workers are members of UE Local 1110. The sit-in had the full and enthusiastic support of their national union, the progressive United Electrical Workers. After 5 days of the non-violent sit-in, Republic Windows and Doors and their giant creditor the Bank of America conceded, and the workers walked out of the plant with a 1.75 million dollar settlement.

The plant occupation was news around the world and messages of support poured in including one from President-elect Barack Obama. As UE Local 1110 vice-president Melvin Maclin put it,"We never expected this. We expected to go to jail."

Much of the worker’s anger was at directed at Bank of America for cutting off much needed credit to Republic Windows. Bank of America’s actions were especially galling given that the bank had received $25 billion dollars in federal bailout money. Raul Flores who had worked at the plant for 8 years, put it this way "The federal government gave this money to Bank of America. You paid your taxes. I paid my taxes. Everybody paid their taxes. So basically we’re paying them to get us fired."

Republic Windows owner Richard Gellman tried to shift any blame away from himself saying,""This has been the worst week of my life," he said. "I know many of those workers at Republic personally, and I put 34 years of my life into that business, and all my money, too. No stone was left unturned in our effort to save Republic."

But Gellman’s claims of innocence and sacrifice do not hold up. Although Republic Windows had received 9.6 million dollars in City of Chicago subsidies to help keep industry in Chicago, there is evidence that Richard Gellman conspired with his wife Sharon Gellman to open a plant in Iowa doing similar work under the name of Echo Windows and Doors. In addition Congressperson Luis Guiterrez, who was involved in negotiations during the sit-in, reports that Richard Gellman demanded that any settlement should pay for the lease of his luxury cars that include a 2007 BMW 350xi and a 2002 Mercedes S500. Guiterrez later said,""I’m not going to describe to you the words that were used when those issues were brought up." 

For decades the wealthy and powerful have dictated harsh terms to the American working class. Widespread corporate unionbusting and outsourcing combined with hostile government policies have kept wages low and working class debt high. Wealth generated by the highly productive American workforce went to the top of the economic food chain or was wasted on foreign wars.

Meanwhile American working class life became more difficult as the future looked increasingly grim. Working class people were told that the invisible hand of the marketplace will eventually make things right as they watched their homes go into foreclosure, their health deteriorate, their jobs disappear and the hope of their children dissipate into bitter cynicism and despair. Be patient and obedient they were told, your leaders on Wall Street or in Washington know what’s best.

This sort of advice has begun to ring increasingly hollow. Ricardo Caceres, a 15 year Republic Windows employee put it this way, "This is a big starting point here in Chicago. It’s time for workers to put their heads up. It’s time for workers to open their eyes. This is not just happening here, it’s happening in all over the world. When we get out of here, we’re getting out with our heads up."

Shutting down a local windows factory in the dead of the Chicago winter is beyond even absurdity. Every year local residents fight an annual battle against the bitter cold of that northern city. Old-time Chicagoans call it "The Hawk", that frigid wind off of Lake Michigan that sinks its talons into the human body without mercy or respite. Fleeing indoors is not enough. The Hawk finds its way inside anyway and older or poorly fitting windows are major culprits.

The moneyed classes can afford the latest in expensive energy efficient windows  technology. Chicago’s working class makes do with cheap weather stripping, caulking guns, newspaper stuffed in cracks, cardboard over broken panes, plastic over the glass that blurs any view of the world outside, insulating fabric that blocks out any view at all, as well as other makeshift solutions. Leaky windows  are not just uncomfortable, they drive up heating costs and waste valuable energy resources.

Affordable energy efficient windows  would go a long ways toward improving the quality of life in Chicago.

Maybe that’s why the United Electrical Workers union has started a "Window of Opportunity Fund" to find a way to reopen the Republic Windows  plant and produce energy efficient windows. If successful, Republic Windows could become part of what some are calling the "green collar economy", a complete retooling of U.S. manufacturing that can support families with environmentally sustainable union jobs while saving the planet from runaway climate change and eco-devastation. Labor and environmental groups are already organizing a blue-green alliance to make this possible.

President-elect Barack Obama is talking about a multi-billion dollar economic stimulus plan to jumpstart the economy. If he’s looking for somewhere to invest that money, I can’t think of a better place than Goose Island’s Republic Windows plant under the ownership of the workers who have already shown their intelligence and courage to the world.

Revolutions often begin where you least expect them. When 4 college students sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, they had no way of knowing that civil rights sit-ins would sweep across America and blast down the walls of Jim Crow like Joshua’s horn at Jericho.

The workers at Republic Windows are mostly Latin American immigrants and African Americans. Will their sit-in on Goose Island be the seed that grows into a blue-green revolution here in the USA?

That’s a question that only their brothers and sisters in the rest of working class America can  answer.


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